Cacti, as you may know, are not placed in the deserts just to amaze us with their showy and colorful flowers in the Spring and Summer. In the ecosystem where cacti live, they perform a much more valuable role.
From the extremes of its showy, flowering phase to its wintery dull appearance, slow-growing cacti provide important sources of sustenance, shade, and protection to the creatures of the desert. Kangaroo rats, mice, lizards, and other small animals make their burrows under the cacti’s protective thorns. Cactus wrens will nest right in among the spines and woodpeckers nest in cavities in the apartment building-like saguaros.
Jackrabbits and kit foxes rest in their shade and rabbits and rodents gnaw on the fleshy pads and fruits. Native Americans collected the fruits as delicious food sources as many desert dwellers do today. They also used the long, pliable ribs of the saguaro as a strengthener in pueblo walls and as supports for roofs of willow leaves in temporary shelters.
Today, unfortunately, the popularity of low-maintenance cacti in ornamental southwestern style gardens has sparked a cactus stealing underground that finds it easier to dig them up from their natural desert habitat than to spend the years it takes to grow them in a nursery.
Where and When To Look
Cacti start the bloom cycle in the lowest, hottest deserts first, then progressively work up to the higher cooler deserts. Some begin about mid-March to early April and can bloom through much of the summer. Cacti can grow in the rockiest terrain and on steep hillsides, but rarely in washes. Some cacti grow in both hot and cold deserts, like several species of prickly pear, while others, like the saguaro, grow only in the hot Sonoran desert.
Desert visitor centers publish color brochures that help in the process of identification of the local species and local or regional field guides make good additions to your nature observation collection. You might also want to include a sun hat, sun block, snack, and plenty of water to drink. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw in a pair of tweezers and an alcohol swab just in case you stroll too close to a jumping cholla. Remember that it is illegal to remove cacti from public lands and it is just good conservation to not pick their flowers or remove the fruit. Cacti need all the help they can get to survive and any action that reduces their chances of survival should be avoided.
Also to be avoided is walking barefoot in the desert and now watching where you are walking. Those spines are waiting for you.